Directed by: David Michod
Written by: David Michod (screenplay), Joel Edgerton and David Michod (story)
Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy
“Australia. Ten years after The Collapse.”
So begins David Michod’s follow-up to Animal Kingdom. As a man – credited as Eric though Guy Pearce’s character never gives his name throughout proceedings – sits in a remote ramshackle bar at some forlorn corner of the Outback, a pickup truck comes to a crashing stop on the highway outside. Moments later, its occupants – Henry (Scoot McNairy) and his gang of outlaws – have stolen Eric’s car and resumed their flight from an unseen botched robbery father up the road. When he comes upon Henry’s brother Rey (Robert Pattinson), wounded and abandoned by the gang, Eric takes Rey hostage and gives chase in Henry’s truck. It’s a nice truck too, probably better suited to the crumbling infrastructre of this new world disorder than Eric’s sensible family saloon. But Eric really really wants his own car back, because…
That’s about all the plot you’ll get – or need – in this stripped-down version of the world going to Hell in a handcart. The Rover is certainly unique in its setting of ‘not-quite-Armageddeon’. Weapons are not obligatory to survive but certainly recommended. Some places still enjoy electricity. If you have U.S. Dollars you can buy gas, guns, bric-a-brac or sexual relief at any number of dingy hole-in-the-wall establishments. A disjointed military presence occasionally makes a go of keeping some semblance of law and order, ostensibly because the remnants of central government in Sydney keep them paid, fed and equipped in return.
The nature of The Collapse is never revealed. The decaying communities which Eric and Rey move through call to mind the odd-mix setting of the original Mad Max: normal folk living normal lives around which a growing lawlessness fights the last forces of order for supremacy. One can easily imagine Max, Goose or the Toe-Cutter cruising under the same skies as Eric and Rey, the total anarchy of The Road Warrior only a few miles and years farther down the highway.
Seeing The Rover as just that – a more coherent and committed take on Max #1 and a bridge to #2 – one wishes Michod had put greater effort into realizing a richer, more original view of our-world-but-not. There are plenty of familiar dystopian flourishes but nothing not already seen from the genre which George Miller’s seminal series helped define. Remote, remorseless desert environs are the go-to setting for these works and the Outback is still gorgeously grim in that regard.
Visually and aurally, The Rover oozes desolation in every frame, be that the wide shots of barren vistas or the close-ups of weathered faces drained of all hope and vitality, but its stripped-down production design and setting don’t allow for anything unique and memorable to set it apart from its predecessors. We’re left only with the characters to inform us of how the world sits and this is where The Rover truly rings false.
Remember the scene in Road Warrior? Max desperately tries to collect the gas spilling from wrecks on the highway. He’s using hubcaps and cans for a few precious drops, moping up stray pools off the tarmac and squeezing them from a dirty rag. In that one scene, the price to survive is made abundantly clear. When survival should be foremost in their minds, characters in The Rover make the dumbest decisions at every opportunity and more than a few end up paying for them. And it’s not merely the peripheral players; on several occasions Eric spurns easy chances to score better weapons, hardier vehicles, even simply gas and we are then treated to following scenes of him haggling for just those things. If the cost of survival is just as high in The Rover, it strains credulity to accept how any of these people made it through the last 10 years in the first place.
Guy Pearce does solid work in conveying Eric’s stoic nihilism and unyielding commitment to his cause. Pattinson is the marquee casting and it’s admirable his recent project choices designed to put distance between him and his Twilight period. His accent here wobbles between Mississippi and Melbourne and his simpleton-affected mumbling is frequently incomprehensible. Edward Cullen it ain’t, so mission accomplished I suppose.
The Rover‘s final shot may well be the clincher that pushes viewers who’ve been on the fence all the way through finally over the edge. It reveals the motive behind Eric’s dogged pursuit of his car and in my fairly-full theatre, the audience, which had been strangely subdued for the entire movie, reacted with more than a few groans and hoots of derision. I myself found it to be oddly fitting—the one true emotional beat in an otherwise detached and dry endeavour. — Mike Reilly